I feel vaguely unqualified to comment on Walter Salles’ On the Road, since it so obviously sets out to embalm Jack Kerouac’s legendary beatnik tome, which I haven’t read. But a few things seem clear even to the uninitiated. One is that the film’s rhythms – episodic and obscure, propelled by ponderous voiceover – come straight from the book, and practically wilt on the screen. Another is that the adaptation betrays the book fundamentally. Its protagonist, Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), recites chunks of the novel: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.” But the movie is nothing like this. It’s repetitive and kind of dour. It starts with a frantic burst of energy and concludes on a note of bittersweet melancholy that I actually found quite affecting, but most of it is a travelogue. It might have burned on the page, in Kerouac’s voice and with autobiographical urgency. On the screen, it doesn’t even simmer.
The story is told through Sal’s eyes as he and his pack of sexually fluid pals tramp their way through their early twenties on a joint and a prayer. Sal is a writer (which we know because the movie shows him scribbling all the time) who lives with his half-catatonic French Canadian mother and struggles to find a voice, and a purpose, and the “it” that’s going to propel him to literary stardom. The film’s focus is on Sal’s relationship with his best friend Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a restless free spirit (or “free spirit” – the movie to its credit does have a measure of cynicism) who, we’re told, spends “a third of his time in the pool hall, a third in jail, and a third in the public library.” We track a few years of their lives as they search for love, adventure, and some measure of contentment.
Walter Salles is a gifted visual storyteller (check out his gorgeous, underrated remake of Dark Water sometime), but here he lets Kerouac take over. He films in sloppy, hand-held close-ups and sets the action to a vampy, delirious soundtrack – one gets the sense that he wants the movie to feel like a free-flowing, improvised jazz solo. Instead it’s just languid and unfocused, lacking narrative drive and wandering off in odd directions that must be meaningful for devotees of the book but are puzzling to the rest of us. Characters show up, offer insights, and take off again, with barely enough time for us to ask “who was that?” (At one point Viggo Mortensen appears out of nowhere to play a morphine addict who offers our heroes a place to stay, badmouths Moriarty, says “okay – see ya!” and motors from the film.) The protagonists’ aimless drug- and sex-fuelled adventures (punctuated by occasional lamentations that maybe “a house” and “a baby” wouldn’t be such bad alternatives) have neither a seductive pull nor the weight of tragedy. They’re just grimy and a little boring.
The ending – faithful to the book, Wikipedia informs me – finds a satisfyingly troubling note to end on, drawing a parallel between Dean Moriarty and the drugs of which he was so impetuously fond, and suggesting that some people, like some substances, are part of the unforgettable folly of youth. Sal tells us that in later years he would “think of Dean Moriarty,” but the last we see of him, he’s standing out in the cold as Sal drives off with his new, mature friends. The betrayal hits like a pile of bricks – the only part of the film that feels like anything at all.
— Eugene Novikov